What can economists learn from linguists? Behavioral economist Keith Chen introduces a fascinating pattern from his research: that languages without a concept for the future — “It rain tomorrow,” instead of “It will rain tomorrow” — correlate strongly with high savings rates.



  • propensity – an inclination or natural tendency to behave in a particular way
  • permissible – permitted; allowed
  • cleave – split or sever (something), cut off
  • visceral – relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect
  • granularity – the scale or level of detail in a set of data
  • nudge – prod (someone) gently with one’s elbow in order to attract attention


Think about it

  • What hypothesis does Keith Chen set forth to present? (1:07)
  • What does the bar chart show? What do all of these countries have in common and what are the differences between them? (1:46)
  • What is the difference between the English and Chinese ways of talking about an uncle? (3:31)
  • How are languages different from each other when talking about time? (5:03)
  • What is the difference between futured and futureless languages? How does this distinction show in the OECD graph? (6:53)
  • What does the map show? (8:56)
  • What conclusion can be reached on the basis of Chen’s presentation? What goal does he and his colleagues are trying to achieve?


 Practice makes perfect

Fill in the blank spaces with the missing words. Use one word per blank space.

Now, many brilliant economists ________ spent their entire lives working ________ this question, and as a field we’ve made a tremendous ________ of headway and we understand a lot about this. What I’m here to talk with you about today is an intriguing new hypothesis and some surprisingly powerful new findings that I’ve been working on about the link ________ the structure of the language you speak and ________ you find yourself with the propensity to save. Let me ________ you a little bit about savings rates, a little bit about language, and then I’ll ________ that connection.


Put the words in brackets into appropriate forms and/or tenses. Listen to the recording again to check your answers. (Start watching at 2:43)

Now, how might that be? Let me give you an example. Suppose I ________ (talk) with you and I ________ (introduce) you to my uncle. You ________ (understand) exactly what I just said in English. If we ________ (speak) Mandarin Chinese with each other, though, I ________ (not have) that luxury. I ________ (not be able to) convey so little information. What my language ________ (force) me to do, instead of just telling you, “This is my uncle,” is to tell you a tremendous amount of additional information. My language ________ (force) me to tell you whether or not this was an uncle on my mother’s side or my father’s side, whether this was an uncle by marriage or by birth, and if this man was my father’s brother, whether he was older than or younger than my father. All of this information is obligatory. Chinese ________ (not let) me ignore it. And in fact, if I ________ (want) to speak correctly, Chinese ________ (force) me to constantly think about it.


Explore it more

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Thinking in a Foreign Language Makes Decisions More Rational